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'Unprecedented destruction'

Tom Stevenson, IstanbulMay 18, 2016

Research by a Turkish human rights group found Turkey's army turned the Kurdish city of Cizre into a 'war zone' where hundreds of civilians died and thousands of homes were destroyed. Tom Stevenson reports from Istanbul.

People walk past ruined houses and shops in Cizre (photo: Getty Images/C. Erdogan)
Image: Getty Images/C. Erdogan

An extensive independent report from the Turkish human rights NGO Mazlumder concludes that Turkish army campaigns in the predominantly Kurdish city of Cizre in the country's far southeast turned the city into a "war zone" where over 200 people were killed during the curfew. More than 10,000 homes were destroyed.

In interviews with dozens of local residents, local officials, as well as the local government and opposition party representatives, along with field research in Cizre, the NGO gathered evidence of multiple human rights violations after the city was subjected to a round-the-clock military lockdown from December to March.

"Cizre has witnessed unprecedented destruction following clashes which took place during a curfew lasting over 78 days, and unlike in curfews before, the curfew in Cizre saw mass killings," Mazlumder said.

A father and his child in a destroyed house in Cizre (photo: Murat Bayram, DW)
A family tries to recover the belongings from their destroyed house in CizreImage: DW/M. Bayram

The military operations in Cizre were part of the Turkish army's campaign against militants linked to the banned Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) who have been locked in an armed struggle with state forces in Turkey's southeast for almost a year.

On May 10, UN Human Rights Chief Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein criticized the Turkish military campaign in the southeast in general, and the killings in Cizre in particular. He demanded a full investigation into reported killings of civilians.

'Basement massacre'

Mazlumder's report concludes that between 203 and 266 people were killed during the military curfew and the fighting between state forces and militants in Cizre, the majority of whom were killed when Turkish security forces stormed three residential basements in which hundreds were sheltering from the fighting.

"A total of 85 people lost their lives before the basement incidents. All those 85 people were locals of Cizre and their official place of residence was Cizre. We knew who they were and where they were living," Kadir Kunur, co-mayor of Cizre, told the NGO. "A total of 176 people were massacred altogether in three basements."

The storming of the basements, which is referred to by Cizre residents as the "basement massacre" is the focus of many of the worst suspected rights abuses.

Osman Duymak, the uncle of Mahmuttin Duymak who was killed in one of the basements, recounted collecting his nephew's body.

"We were made to wait there from morning to evening and treated in a humiliating way before we were able to get the body of my nephew. We saw eight bodies there. We brought my nephew's body to a mosque for funeral services," Osman said. "There was an imam there. He was going to make the ritual body washing, but the body was not in a state to be washed," he added.

"There was a pile of bones, weighing two to three kilograms, nothing else."

Was the curfew extented to cover up abuses?

Residents describe how the neighborhoods surrounding the basements were attacked by state forces using tanks and artillery. According to co-mayor Kunur, following the worst of the fighting the security forces extended the military curfew for a further 19 days to cover up the evidence of abuses.

"The buildings which were not demolished during the clashes were destroyed. Debris mixed with human remains were dumped on the banks of the Tigris River," Kunur said.

After studying the claims, Mazlumder concludes that the fact that "no investigations were carried out over the 19-day period into the killings leads to allegations that the security forces may have destroyed evidence during that period."

The report also gathered evidence that the Turkish army used snipers in Cizre, resulting in civilian casualties. Abdurrahman Ince, 60, recounts how his father and his nephew's three-month-old daughter were killed by a sniper.

"Miray was my nephew's daughter. Her aunt was taking her downstairs in her arms. Miray was hit by a cartridge in the face. While Miray was being taken to hospital, the same sniper shot my father Ramazan," Ince told Mazlumder.

A man holds his daughter as he looks out at the ruined houses of Cizre (photo: Getty Images/C. Erdogan)
More than 10,000 houses were destroyed, the NGO's research foundImage: Getty Images/C. Erdogan

"It seems that snipers and heavy shelling are also responsible for the civilian deaths," the NGO wrote in the report. "According to claims, security forces did not show any sensitivity when it came to putting the lives and properties of civilians at risk during the operations."

Mazlumder's investigation also documented the destruction of the houses of "more than 10,000 families" as well as serious damages to the town's water and sewage system. The organization fears this will lead to serious and widespread health problems.

"The revelation of these acts - the state crimes in Cizre - is very significant," said Nurcan Baysal, a founder of the Diyarbakir Institute for Political and Social Research, another independent rights organization working in Turkey's southeast.

Baysal is skeptical, however, that legal action or other judicial accountability will result from the documentation of abuses in Cizre.

'Little point in expecting justice'

"There is little point in expecting justice from the Turkish courts, in fact the government is now working on a law that will protect state forces from prosecution in the future because of this conflict," she told DW.

"However if the EU or UN would have sent missions to Cizre during the curfews it might have been different - perhaps some of the dead would still be alive today."

Though the conflict in Cizre has now all but ended, similar Turkish military campaigns are currently underway in the southeastern cities of Nusaybin, Sirnak, and Yuksekova.

"We couldn't do anything in Cizre, but in Nusaybin, Gever [Kurdish name for Yuksekova] and Sirnak, it isn't yet too late," Baysal said.